Halam Lancaster

There was an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2011, about a couple of Australian aircrew who had been killed when their Lancaster crashed while on a training flight. It was 10 April 1943, and the crew was on their last exercise at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit, Winthorpe, before being posted to an operational squadron. Shortly after take-off the aircraft crashed in the small village of Halam, eight miles from the aerodrome and aligned with the runway they had departed from.

Sixty nine years later to the day, a memorial was unveiled in Halam commemorating the seven men who died in the crash. It was the culmination of some years of work by a local man named Andrew Paris who has now researched the story of the crew and how they came to be on that aircraft.

Jack Purcell was posted to RAF Winthorpe between September and November 1943 and I visited the excellent Newark Air Museum that now occupies a corner of the old airfield while visiting the UK in 2009. But that wasn’t why the story in the Herald set some faint bells of recognition chiming in my mind. As part of his research Andrew had been looking for information on what the crew might have been up to during their time at 1661 HCU. I got in touch with him through the Lancaster Archive Forum and was able to share an extract of Jack’s logbook covering the time he had been at the unit. While only a very small piece of the overall story, every little bit helps towards developing an understanding of ‘what they were doing there’.

It’s another good demonstration, I think, of how the Internet has revolutionised historical research. The reach of the web is world-wide, and it’s made finding this information much easier because it’s now a simple matter to find someone on the other side of the world who might have the information that you seek. And it’s then made it very easy to share the results of your work with a much greater audience than in the past.

(c) 2013 Adam Purcell

Remembering Scredington

In June 1943, a seven year old lad named Neil Trotter was in the playground at school in a tiny English village called Scredington when he saw a big black bomber flying very low overhead. After walking home that afternoon, he was told by his mother that the aircraft had crashed in the fields behind the house (about two miles from the school). Neil later learnt that his mother had approached the aircraft intending to render what assistance she could, but because of exploding ammunition was unable to get anywhere near the wreck. All on board perished in the crash.

The aircraft was Lancaster I ED439, of 83 Squadron. It had taken off from Wyton at around 11.00am on 18 June 1943 with a crew of seven, plus two passengers believed to have been wireless technicians:

Pilot: AUS409804 F/Sgt M.K. Cummings

Flight Engineer: AUS6756 Sgt H.W. Luker

Navigator: 537936 Sgt F.W. Wilcox

Bomb Aimer: 1431821 Sgt J. Roughley

Wireless Operator: 1396788 Sgt Cheshire

Mid Upper Gunner: 1588938 Sgt N. Woodcock

Rear Gunner: Can. R113958 Sgt R. Taylor

Passengers: 1024724 Cpl Bond and 1544915 Cpl. Sloss

The ‘Report on Flying Accident or Forced Landing Not Attributable to Enemy Action’ in Max Cummings’ casualty file at the National Archives of Australia shows that the aircraft was on a practice bombing flight “but did not carry out [its] detail”. It was seen to dive out of cloud near Highgate Farm, Scredington, about 45 minutes after take-off. The aircraft burnt on impact. While the Commanding Officer, 83 Squadron, recommended a Court of Enquiry be held as “this was a fully capable crew”, he appears to have been overruled by the Station Commander, RAF Wyton, Group Captain H.R. Graham, who wrote that “pending [the] report of Accident Investigation branch, I doubt that any useful purpose can be gained by holding [a] Court of Enquiry”. A report by the Engineer Officer, 83 Squadron, written after examination of the accident scene, states that “the starboard wing hit a farm building, and demolished one end wall, the fuselage and probably undercarriage nacelle tore off the roof of an unoccupied house close to the Barn.” The aircraft was identified by means of a number plate attached to one of the four engines. Because of the lack of a formal Court of Enquiry, the exact cause of the crash remains unknown to this day.

The idea to properly commemorate the men who died in this crash has been percolating around in Neil Trotter’s mind for some years and, now he’s retired after a long career in the post-war RAF, he’s had the time to do something about it. With the assistance of the RAF Association (Lincolnshire Branch), he has been working on organising for an appropriate memorial plaque to be placed in the village church in memory of the crew. He has managed to contact the families of six of the nine men who were on board the Lancaster when it crashed, and representatives of some of these families will be attending the unveiling ceremony in June this year. Other parties involved in the ceremony will be a large crowd of Scredington villagers, the Mayor of the local area, a considerable current RAF presence from the stations at Waddington, Coningsby and Wyton, and the local Air Training Corps, who will become custodians of the memorial after the ceremony. All in all, it’s a significant undertaking and it all comes, primarily, from Neil Trotter’s desire to find out more about that fleeting childhood glimpse of a Lancaster.

Ultimately stories like these are about the airmen themselves. They deserve to be remembered, and it’s heartening to see the work that people like Neil have done in the UK to ensure the stories live on.


© 2013 Adam Purcell



Emails between Neil Trotter, Ian Milnes, Bill Hauxwell, Gerrit Kuijper and myself, November 2012- March 2013

Research into P/O Max Cummings, carried out by Victor Harbour RSL Sub Branch, South Australia

NAA: A705, 166/8/141; CUMMINGS, Max Keiran – (Pilot Officer); Service Number – 408904; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster ED 439; Place – Lincolnshire; Date – 18 June 1943

I became involved in this story through a very small part that I played in the search for the family of P/O Cummings.

The Scroll of Honour

A few weeks ago I took some days off work and my girlfriend and I drove a rented campervan up to Echuca, on the Murray River which borders New South Wales and Victoria. While exploring the surrounding area we stopped at a small winery in neighbouring Moama (on the NSW side of the river) to escape the stinking heat of the day. The winery also happened to have attached to it a small military museum, so we went in to have a look.

In the museum – which, alas, was not air-conditioned – was a quite remarkable gathering of old vehicles on the ground floor, some restored and some not so restored. Upstairs, arranged in a collection of dusty display cabinets, were uniforms, rifles, medals, badges and other assorted items of militaria. What caught my eye was this:

12nov-britzingthemurray-023 copy

It is a scroll as presented to the families of Australian servicemen who died as a result of their military service in World War II. A similar scroll hangs on a wall at my parents’ place, bearing the name of my grandfather’s uncle, RW Purcell. The scroll in Moama commemorates one Flight Sergeant I H Smead – but apart from the name on the scroll itself, there were no details on who he might have been or what might have happened to him. I thought it looked quite sad sitting there all but forgotten in a display case in a roasting tin shed next to the Murray River, so I decided to see what I could find out about him when I got home.

The first place to look, as with any Australian casualty from either of the World Wars, was the Commonwealth War Graves website. This gave me a few further details to work with:


Rank: Flight Sergeant

Service No: 419228

Date of Death: 21/04/1944

Age: 20

Regiment/Service: Royal Australian Air Force

Grave Reference Plot A. Row D. Grave 14.


I now had a name, service number and date of death – and, most interestingly, information that he is buried in Bundaberg, Queensland. Bundaberg was the site of No. 8 Service Flying Training School at that time. Being a training unit, this suggested an accident rather than enemy action.

Going out on a limb, I tried a quick Google search – and came up with Peter Dunn’s Oz At War website which revealed what happened. Irwin Smead was a navigator. He was flying in a Bristol Beaufort on a formation flying exercise on 21 April 1944 when it collided with another Beaufort of the same formation about 15 miles west of Bundaberg. All eight airmen – four in each aircraft – were killed.

I also found a copy of the “Preliminary Report Internal External of Flying Accident or Forced Landing” for this accident in the Casualty or Repatriation File of F/Sgt Hardy, the pilot of the other aircraft*, which is digitised at the National Archives of Australia website (A705, 166/17/544). It gives the probable cause of the collision as ‘UNKNOWN’.

It’s not much, but finding even this small amount of information adds that little bit more to Irwin Smead’s story. It reminds us that he was more than just a name on a page.

*Interestingly there appears to be a disagreement between this source and Peter Dunn’s information about which aircraft were involved in this accident. Both agree on Hardy’s aircraft, A9-476 – but the NAA file shows Smead’s as A9-426. This shows the value of going back to the original documents wherever possible!  

This will be the last post on SomethingVeryBig for 2012. Thanks to all for your support and comments throughout the year. Have a great Christmas, and I’ll be back in mid-January.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

One Friday Afternoon’s Work

Gilbert Pate’s first flight – ever – was in a Tiger Moth from Mascot, Sydney in August 1939. His father, Sydney, wrote about it in a letter to Don Smith in July 1944, after the crew had gone missing (A01-346-003). Gilbert had gone flying with a good friend, Andrew MacArthur-Onslow. They even flew over the Pate family home in nearby Kogarah (“2-storey”, wrote Sydney Pate, “and in the nature of a local land-mark”).

Sydney also wrote that Andrew was “now alas deceased”. I decided to try and find out what happened to him.

It seemed likely that Andrew’s was a war-related death, so the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database was my first port of call. I found a match:

Initials: A W
Nationality: Australian
Rank: Flight Lieutenant
Regiment/Service: Royal Australian Air Force
Age: 25
Date of Death: 18/01/1943
Service No: 261535
Additional information: Son of Francis Arthur and Sylvia Seton Raymond MacArthur-Onslow, of Campbelltown.
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: Row A. Grave 6.

Note that he died a Flight Lieutenant and is buried at Tamworth, NSW, the site of an Elementary Flying Training School. This suggested he was an instructor.

I next searched the National Archives of Australia for a service record – which exists, but is not digitised so I can’t access it from here. I did find a record of his enlistment in the Australian Army Militia pre-war. I also looked through some Tiger Moth accident reports but found no matches.

Perhaps Tamworth cemetery records would yield something. I found this page, which had the bloke I was looking for. It also had a record for another man killed on the same day – a Thomas Myles DAWSON of Queensland. Figuring two men was the normal crew complement at an EFTS, there was a good chance that both of these men were killed in the same accident.

Dawson proved the breakthrough. A search for his service number at the National Archives pulled up a service record (digitised) – and, more importantly, an entry in an accident file (also digitised). It was a simple matter to access the accident file, which answered the question of what happened to F/L AW MacArthur-Onslow.

Gilbert Pate’s great mate, who had held a pilot’s licence before the war and who took Gilbert for his first flight, possibly sparking Gil’s interest in flying, was killed in a flying accident while serving with the Central Flying School.  On 18JAN43  MacArthur-Onslow was flying with a Sgt TM Dawson in Wirraway A20-45, on an authorised practice low-level sortie 16 miles south-east of Tamworth. They crashed during the low-level segment of the flight and both were killed. The aircraft was written off. (A04-087-001, NAA: A9845, 102).

The most pleasing thing for me in this saga is that it all happened one Friday afternoon. I was reading through all of Sydney Pate’s letters in preparation for an article I’m working on about Gil when I read the July 1944 correspondence to Don Smith. That sparked the curiosity to find out what happened to Andrew MacArthur-Onslow – and over the course of a couple of hours I found what I was looking for. Another loose thread tied off, another facet of Gilbert Pate’s life uncovered.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

So Far from Home

A recent article in Sydney’s Sun-Herald, 02JAN11:


Flying Officer Lindsay Page Bacon, a couple of months before the end of the war in Europe, returning from a bombing operation in a 7 Sqn Lancaster which is damaged in combat and struggling to keep height. He manages to avoid crashing into a small town, but in the process destroys what little control he has over the aircraft. All on board perish in the crash.

65 years later, digging at a construction site in Nieuwdorp, the Netherlands, uncovers remnants of F/O Bacon’s aircraft. The town goes on a search for information about the crew, with an aim to build a memorial near the crash site. With the help of the newspaper they eventually find F/O Bacon’s sole surviving brother in Ulladulla, NSW.

People have many motivations for becoming involved in this sort of research. For myself, like many others, it’s about that dusty photograph or logbook, and wanting to know more about someone who shared your name. For others, it’s the technical aspects of the aircraft, or the tactics, or the strategies.

But for people like Hans van Dam, the Dutchman who contacted the newspaper in Sydney, it’s about remembering the men who came from the other side of the world to fight in the defence of his little village – and who never got the chance to go back home.